Living Abroad and Our Sense of Self

“Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am…Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines…you are forced into direct experience [which] inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience.” Michael Crichton, Travels

In the process of becoming an adult, or in travelling for a long time, we will be forced to shed much of our baggage. Do you have a story about yourself that was told to you by others about you as a child? Were you told that you struggle at Math? Were you classified as either introverted or extroverted? Did you come to think of yourself as belonging to a particular economic class? Did your caring parents ever tell you that you were meant for something special in this world? A lot of these kinds of stories are meaningful for us, and they often end up defining us … if we let them.  As a child we often have little reason to reject, or even modify, a story that an authoritative caregiver put on us as a child; the story wouldn’t be disputed and was likely to be accepted as true.

On a simple level, I was always told that I wasn’t good with my hands or with money matters, much to my embarrassment.  It took so long to fix anything, and I was often criticized for grabbing a flat-head screwdriver when I needed a Phillips. I would spend money I didn’t have, from an early age. I was known for the walks to 7-11 or the arcade where I would spend nearly all my paper route money and even more on occasion. What I got for it was a significant addiction to Slurpees and the high score on Galaga that probably is still located on that particular arcade game. These stories became fixed in my mind that I often would shy away from any tasks that required the use of everyday tools or with anything that had to do with ordering my finances. Not coincidentally, I had frequently heard that I was intellectually smart, and not surprisingly, that aggravated my shame in supposedly not being good with my hands or with money.

The stories that we have repeatedly heard from people who love and care for us (caregivers, siblings, teachers and friends) get codified and reified and fixed in our minds. Like the underlying neural processes and “wiring” in our brains, they get canalized. They become difficult to change, even a rut, out of which escape is unlikely. These stories that we have codified and embedded into our self-identity can exist like landmarks in our navigation of the world as adults. Gratefully, at least I existed until my post-adolescence in environments where I didn’t take on negative self-stories due to my race, gender, language, sexual orientation, economic status or religion. I was a white, English-speaking, upper-middle-class, heterosexual Christian man living in an environment where each of those classifications was dominant in the social world I inhabited. If any of those classifications don’t fit you, then you will know of much more traumatic self-stories than I had. Many would call what I lived in, and how I existed as white privilege.

But these self-stories get embedded at an early age, and it is hard to live outside their narrative. Like the concept of white privilege, where the accident of what and where we are born into precedes us and gives us certain advantages and disadvantages, our self-stories operate in much the same way; we are told (or tell ourselves) that we are a certain way, and are fated to live out that narrative for our lifetime.  Case in point: I had four major projects to accomplish in the last couple of days, and filing my taxes was the last and most anxiety-inducing one I accomplished.

So, why mention all of this? Well, my taxes weren’t as difficult as I had anticipated. Oh, and you may be aware of the immovable landmarks you have while you navigate the world.  That is, we all have stories about ourselves that bring us freedom or that inhibit us, and we know we need to get a handle on them to have a better idea of who we actually are.  Not knowing about ourselves, as is obvious for all those who suffer from issues of mental health, is an essential problem in overcoming these issues.

Before I go on, let me tip my hand: I research authenticity; I want to make certain people know how to live authentically, and to be conscious and deliberate about what that means. That means I promote integrity and in generating congruence between how we know ourselves, how we portray ourselves, and who we actually are. I believe much of our current predicaments including income inequality, racial injustice, political polarization, the widespread mental health crisis stem from our inability to be authentic. That there are identifiable forces and systems – beliefs and values – that push us to increasingly inauthentic behaviors. Even though these forces are identifiable in principle, they often go undetected.  This is because we aren’t clear of precisely the nature, scope, and the frameworks for authenticity.  The overarching problem is that many of the traditional mechanisms for generating authentic people have been destroyed or otherwise have disappeared. Authenticity needs to be articulated, rediscovered, and the structures that make it possible need to be rebuilt.

So, encountering an article entitled, “How Living Abroad Helps You Discover a Clearer Sense of Self” from the Harvard Business Review (HBR), published in 2018, I was intrigued, and many of my typical readers should be as well; they are people who no longer live in the environment of their youth – and most have spent at least some time living abroad. I have lived 16 years of my adult life away from Canada, and I now live in a different province than the one in which I grew up. 

The fundamental claim of the article was that international experience, specifically – living abroad, enhanced creativity, reduced inter-group bias, promoted career success, and most importantly for our purposes, increased our clarity concerning our sense of self.  Their research “…focused on ‘self-concept clarity,’ the extent to which someone’s understanding of themselves is ‘clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable’. This is important because self-concept clarity has been linked to a host of benefits, such as psychological well-being, the ability to cope with stress, and job performance, but research on how it can be cultivated is very limited. 

Yet living abroad is filled with transitional experiences.  In my case, I lived in 5 different countries than Canada, in more than 20 different homes, and in more than two dozen different jobs with at least a dozen employers. Most studies have found that transitional experiences, such as job changes or romantic breakups (both of which I have gone through… in spades), typically decrease self-concept clarity. However, most people who live abroad will have a clearer sense of who they are as a result. The article asked, “Could living abroad be a unique kind of transitional experience?” In agreement with HBR, I believe living abroad is a unique transitional experience; however, it should be further asserted that living abroad is not essential to having a clearer concept of self. A causal connection between living abroad and having a clear sense of self is not warranted because the investigation did not include any features of living abroad and what they contributed to such self-awareness.

Living Abroad Is Associated with a Clearer Sense of Self

The authors of the HBR article found that people who had lived abroad reported a clearer sense of self than people who had not. They considered a correlation change that people who choose to live abroad already have a clearer sense of self to begin with compared to people who never intend to do so. To help rule out this explanation, they conducted a study which revealed that people who had lived abroad reported a clearer sense of self than people who had not lived abroad yet, but intended to do so within the next year. However, the reasons why this happened were only partially explored – and that leads to confusion about what features of authentic self-clarity are necessary for the information to be sufficiently informative. They discovered only two reasons for increased self-clarity: self-discerning reflections and depth of experience. 

 What Self-Discerning Reflections Have to Do with It

HBR discovered that self-discerning reflections are more likely to happen when living abroad. When people live in their home country, they are often surrounded by others who mostly behave in similar ways, so they are not compelled to question whether their own behaviors reflect their core values or the values of the culture in which they are embedded. In contrast, when living abroad, the data revealed that people’s exposure to novel cultural values and norms prompts them to repeatedly engage with their own values and beliefs, which are then either discarded or strengthened. They had asked the subjects of their studies (those who had lived abroad, and those who hadn’t) to reflect on their experiences. It was found that the ones who had lived abroad had greater self-clarity. HBR suggested that this difference occurred because the people who had written about living abroad had recalled more self-discerning reflections.

This barely tells the story of reflecting while living abroad. Of course the key point is that expats are surrounded by the foreign.  It is this sharp relief against a dominant background that is different than one’s own that provides a horizon against which reflections on a sense of self even make sense. But travelling abroad isn’t the only way to gain such experience.  I work in a University setting in which a large minority of my students have intersected identities that do not fall in the norm – and most of those students haven’t travelled abroad.  I have found that those people have a greater sense of clarity, and also that they self-reflect more frequently. What those people have in common with those who travel abroad is that they have enlarged private lives, i.e. they have more free time spent either in isolation or in another cultural setting to generate such self-reflective behaviors. Those who had not travelled abroad that reflect upon life in their native environment will not reflect as deeply because they will not be separated in their private lives as often.

In other words, people who aren’t part of the mainstream self-reflect more, not only people who have traveled abroad. It can include people who have alternative lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, or even vocations (like artists). Interestingly, what living abroad does breed is an openness to others and an appreciation of diversity.  As I have written elsewhere, bringing people who are different than you into your realm of significant others is an essential component of clarifying self-reflection. But the key point of agreement is that this type of self-reflection is a necessary part of developing the self-clarity that is necessary for authenticity. And self-reflection will be generated through appreciation and through sustained experiences of diversity. But also self-reflection is generated when private lives are enlarged.

Depth, Not Breadth, of Living Abroad Experiences Matters Most

HBR recruited large samples of MBA students who had, on average, spent almost three years living abroad. These samples allowed for a more nuanced investigation of the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity. In particular, the longer people live abroad, the more opportunities they have to engage in self-discerning reflections; in contrast, whether these experiences occur in a single foreign country or in multiple foreign countries should be less important. A study involving 559 MBA students confirmed the depth—but not the breadth—of living abroad experiences predicted a clearer sense of self.

While it is true, the answer they gave pointed back on self-reflection.  However, the real test of it is what I have called “progressive culture shock”. This is when the culture shock you experience at one month will be much milder in degree than the one experienced at one year, and then again at year three.  This happens because the more you think you have come to know and feel at home in a place the larger the shock will be.  At first, it may have to do with consumptive habits like different food or entertainment, hygiene practices or greetings. Yet, as you spend longer in a place, it will have to do with relational expectations, or role differences, or working styles.  As you stay even longer, you start to get shocked by differences in areas as deep as religious orientations or even metaphysical awarenesses.  Why it matters the most isn’t that it leads you to more self-reflective behavior; it is because the relief you see yourself against is so profoundly different.  The sharper the contrast at levels of identity, the clearer the identity.

While it is true that the longer someone spends in a place the more they will reflect, the essential concern for self-clarity is the starkness of the contrast by which you measure yourself at levels that are not discernible by the five senses. As I went to South Korea, I immediately noticed the different types of food and ways of eating, the different styles of clothes and different modes of transportation. But what I didn’t realize until later was the essentially different ways of relating to your parents, to your boss, and to people of the “opposite” gender.  It was only three years onward that I realized that by having certain roles and relationships, I was a different person than I had been in Canada. The culture shock was at the point of identity. And that shock provided enough of a contrast for me to be deliberate about the kind of person I strove to be and who I was.  In other words, the contrast of cultures liberated me enough to be deliberate about so much of what made me who I am.

Other Structural Features of Authenticity

In addition to regular and deep exposure to diversity and contrasting cultures, authenticity is structured by some more features. First, in order to have the structures required to be authentic, one must have an enlarged private life that isn’t colonized by others’ agendas – like social media, gaming, or other social influences. In other words, meaningful moments of solitude will be a part of every authentic adult. Second, one must have a group of significant others who help refine an individual’s identity. This group of significant others cannot only be populated by people who are like the individual. The group must be open to diverse others – in age, race, gender, religion or any other of the host of categories. Thus the group of significant others will change in terms of particular members in a lifetime, but they must take on the job of helping each other define and refine each member’s own authentic self. They are not only there in an individual’s life as a cheerleader, but also as someone who can hold the individual account for inauthentic behaviors as well.

In this sense, the roles of solitude and of significant others form a kind of structure of authenticity. They especially form the backbone people who can be deemed authentic because significant others not only support one in friendship, they can call “bullshit” when we are being inauthentic.  The solitude one has is to be self-clear, which means to be aware of one’s self, and not contriving it.    

There are some significant consequences of this reflection. In being faithful to the readers of HBR, let’s look at two corporate ones. 

A Clearer Sense of Self Leads to More-Congruent Feedback

One possible consequence is that a clearer sense of self might produce a better alignment between how people see themselves and how others see them, both of which are captured in 360-degree feedback systems. These systems have become highly prevalent in the corporate world, with some estimates indicating that around 90% of large organizations use them, and mismatched ratings are associated with a range of negative job-related outcomes. A high level of congruence indicates that students and employees view themselves in a similar way as others view them. Congruence is related to self-concept clarity because when people have a clear understanding of themselves, they are more likely to project a clear and consistent self-image to others

Clearer Career Decisions

Studies have shown that in today’s complex vocational world, the vast majority of people will experience difficulty in making important career choices at some point in their lives, and deciding what to do with their careers after graduation is one of the biggest challenges for MBA students. It stands to reason that having a clear sense of self elucidates which types of career options best match one’s strengths and fulfill one’s values, thereby enabling people to be clearer and more confident about their career decisions. Those who lived abroad for longer were more likely to say they were clear about what they wanted to do with their careers after their post-secondary education.

For the sake of brevity, let’s consider two more consequences.

Significant Others

If I am right that a potentially diverse group of significant others are essential to authentic living, then, for our own well-being, we must nurture these significant others. Fostering a healthy community of significant others would be a key ingredient in our own authentic journeys. Significant others are those who help us refine and form our individual identity, as paradoxical as it sounds. So our circle of significant others must be nourished like a garden.  A healthy garden will produce healthy plants. If the garden becomes a waste, or dominated by an unhealthy plant or soil, then the chances of an individual plant thriving will be greatly reduced.  Certain plants in the garden will need to be removed, and then replaced by other, diverse plants that will enhance the garden.

In other words, you cannot be an authentic individual unless you also have a group of loved ones that are not stagnant, but growing.


If I am right that an enlarged private life is a structural feature of being authentic, then we would all do well to make a space of solitude that is uncorrupted by social influences.  A healthy solitude goes in the exact opposite direction of alienation, even though solitude and alienation seem similar on the surface. There are many literatures on this, from many traditions.  If I could advocate for three types of solitude they would be:

  1. Prayer: submitting worries, fears and anxieties to a higher power is a time to come home to who we are – and to listen to the spiritual forces inside us. An inauthentic person forgets the spiritual reality we live in. Authentic people are connected to it. 
  2. Mindfulness Meditation: this is an incredible journey to get back in touch with your own body and to bridge the distinction between being and doing that has been so sharply entrenched in the Western world.
  3. Spending time outdoors: We live in Creation and belong to it. Spending time alone outside reconnects us to the world around us and helps us to remember that the human artifice is artificial. 

In other words, you cannot be authentic until you take deliberate steps to step back in solitude and deliberately overcome particular alienations that have manifested in your life. Self-reflective activity is key.

There is so much more to this. I am curious… what are the biggest obstacles to your own authentic life?

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